The world can sometimes be a difficult place, and we often use music to find meaning in it. This past Friday at the Strathmore Music Center, Broadway dynamo Audra McDonald took the packed house on a journey through the American Musical Theater Songbook, and her own personal journey to find meaning in music.
Over the last 20 years, Audra McDonald has become one of the most recognized stars on Broadway and has crossed over into television and films successfully as well. She currently holds the record for most Tony Award wins, with 6, and is the only performer to have won a Tony in all four acting categories. She also has two Prime Time Emmy Awards and a Grammy. Her most iconic and celebrated roles have been Carrie in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Carousel,” originating the role of Sarah in Broadway’s “Ragtime,” the title character in Broadway’s “Marie Christine,” Ruth in the 2004 Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Bess in the revival of “Porgy and Bess,” Mother Abbess in the NBC “The Sound of Music Live!” and Madame de Garderobe in this past March’s live action film adaption of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” She is one of the most sought-after performers and singers today. Her unique and instantly recognizable soprano defies categorization, as she deftly blends operatic and musical theater style with a bluesy sensibility that allows her to sing across genres effortlessly.
…it is rare to find singers that sound as good live as they do on recordings. I am happy to report that Ms. McDonald fully falls into this elite group.
Ms. McDonald kicked off the performance with “When Did I Fall in Love” from the 1959 Tony-winning musical, “Fiorello,” the first of several lesser-known Broadway tunes that she would perform. However, she did a fantastic job creating a set list that blended standard favorites with some great songs that have faded a bit from memory or more eclectic contemporary songs that would give the audience something new to love. She followed her opener with a song that has become synonymous with her name, the subtly comic and melancholy “Stars and the Moon” from the musical “Songs for a New World.” Another tune that has become connected to her is “Summertime,” from “Porgy and Bess.” She did not disappoint and her performance of this classic was a wonder to behold. She also did a sing-a-long version of the song that she asserts all sopranos must master to get their “soprano card,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from “My Fair Lady.”
A big portion of her banter revolved around her two daughters and their connections and reactions to her career. Surprisingly, her older daughter has never been that impressed by her voice, apparently saying that “mommy’s singing makes my ears cry.” So she sang the audience “Moonshine Lullaby” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” and a lullaby medley of “My Little Boy” from “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “Baby Mine” from the Disney film “Dumbo,” since her voice was anything but soothing to her firstborn. She did some upbeat and comedic numbers, with “I Can’t Stop Talking About Him Yet,” “I Double Dare You” and “A Glamourous Life,” the last of which is by prolific songwriter Stephen Sondheim. She shared an anecdote about having the honor of performing one of his songs at a very public event, and the very public humiliation that came when she forgot the lyrics. One of the funniest moments, though, was her performance of a song by Kate Miller Heidke about the complicated feelings that come when an ex sends you a friend request on Facebook.
She also performed some more serious songs, many with a common theme of longing for something, either a hope for the future or a memory of the past or for home. Again, these tunes were a mix of well-known classics (“Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret,”) and lesser known works. Her performance of “When I’m Gonna Go Back Home” from “The Scottsboro Boys” was so full of sad longing that it made my chest hurt. Her rendition of “I’ll Be Here” from the “Ordinary Days” soundtrack moved me to tears. I had never heard of that song or even that musical before, and am grateful to Ms. McDonald for introducing me to it.
Another theme that flowed throughout the concert was the power that artists and music can have in an often malevolent world. McDonald asserted that the role of artists in acting as beacons of light and love is more important now than ever. She chose to sing a standard that has come to represent a kind of mantra for her towards the end of the show, with the simple message of “Make Someone Happy.” She closed the show with a song that she performed on “The Sound of Music Live!” as the Mother Abbess, again as a message of inspiration: “Climb Every Mountain.” She fully brought the house down and was called back for an encore. Though an audience member requested something from her applauded turn as Billie Holiday, but she said that, due to her imitation of Holiday’s very distinctive voice, doing it outside the confines of the show felt like a “parlor trick.” She instead performed a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
As a long-time fan, it was an amazing experience to see Audra McDonald live. Even amongst seasoned performers, it is rare to find singers that sound as good live as they do on recordings. I am happy to report that Ms. McDonald fully falls into this elite group. Strathmore once again shows their commitment to bringing the highest quality entertainment to the D.C. area and their exquisite venue provides the perfect platform for these immensely talented artists.
While Audra McDonald was a one-night engagement, Strathmore has many more upcoming events to enjoy: click here.